Reality TV & The Reality of Trump

I've been meaning to write about the role of broadcast TV in the rise of Donald Trump. Much has been written about his "unprecedented" rise, and recently Vox came out with an excellent video explainer defining authoritarianism in the US and how Trump and authoritarianism have fed off of each other.

If you step back and look at the larger media landscape of the television industry, you can observe that Trumps' rise was not so "unprecedented" after all. There is another behavioral trait of his that has been observed and that I'd like to revisit, and that's his child-like machismo behavior, the perpetual bullying and condescending tone of his attacks. If you think about some of America's greatest presidents, Reagan, JFK, FDR, Washington, Lincoln, imagine for a moment them having to deal with Trump and his "attitude" in a debate. It doesn't really seem imaginable. Why? They would never have had to, it would be an impossibility that the sort of behavior that Trump exhibits would have allowed a candidate to be in a position to be president of the United States. At that time, it would have just been unacceptable. But times have changed. And what has changed about those times? Society's acceptance and perception towards the type of behavior that Trump exhibits. And why has it changed? I believe it is largely because of the entertainment industry, who pushed their reality TV formula onto the masses. The formula functions on the premise that drama, conflict and aggressive behavior result in confrontations that keep people watching. The ironically named "reality" TV genre is essentially a carefully structured (every show has several writers) low budget drama formula that yields high ratings, which translates into high advertising dollars for minimal cash investment.

Trump was a well-known entity previous to The Apprentice, but he really became a "cult of personality" on the show, where his job description by the network was to be "tough" on the people who were competing to be his apprentice. His position of "the boss" elevated his influence above the other cast. In the every day workplace his behavior would be considered condescending, rude, disrespectful, and not something that would normally be tolerated. But the entertainment industry was rewarding this type of behavior approvingly with power and influence. Trump's egregious and abrasive leadership style was put on a pedestal by the entertainment industry, and this amplified these particular characteristics as being acceptable and the ones needed for great success. Trump exuded unfettered machismo confidence in his own abilities and mocked anyone who questioned it. Over time, this behavior became less shocking, and the public accepted it more and more. Trump's "bad behavior" proved lucrative for him. So when he decided to run for the office of the US President, he knew that he could use the media to manipulate the public in the same manner. The benefits of lying and being outrageous did not outweigh the costs. In fact, there seems to be no penalty at all for outright lying, just the reward of more attention. And as has often been said... any press is good press. Media attention is influence, which is power. So yes, I am saying in the long scheme of the bigger picture, The Real World played a part in the paving of the road for Trump's rise to power!

The reality TV industry is just that, an industry. It leverages people's desire for fame, often paying relatively little or nothing at all to its cast members while maximizing profit for themselves and their employees. There is very little regard to the consequences of their business strategy, either to the people they exploit and then discard, or to the social ramifications on public consciousness. It is, after all, "just TV". However it's not just the producers of the reality TV industry which are responsible, but also the consumers. American society fuel the demand for these types of personalities to watch. The situation is a classic supply and demand dynamic of a product, with money being the underlying driver and motive. So if Trump does indeed become President and causes irreparable damage, perhaps one could argue that the "profit above all" system is eating itself alive? A Dr. Frankenstein destroyed by its own creation?

I hope the entertainment industry can recognize their own role in the process and perhaps make some adjustments to their business model so that it doesn't only operate on the impulse to cater to the lowest common denominator which appeals to the base level, knee jerk, rubber necking tendency of the public consumer. We're all on the same ship. Let's have a little more consideration for the future and not just fast profits. We need to learn how to advance beyond that if American democracy is to be sustainable and evolve into the 21st Century.